Foreign academics in Korea: disempowered and ready to leave?

Interviews paint a bleak picture of morale at Yonsei University, raising further concerns about country’s attempt to internationalise

March 15, 2016
Participants at Korean-language essay contest, Yonsei University
Source: Alamy
Keep it short: many international scholars don’t stay long at Yonsei and this may be the case elsewhere, and the number of international students is falling

Since the turn of the millennium, South Korean universities have been trying to improve their research capabilities by attracting scholars from across the world to shake up a sometimes insular system.

But a study has found that in at least one of the country’s top institutions, foreign faculty are feeling disempowered and usually leave a few years after being recruited, raising questions about how successfully Korean universities and other Asian institutions are integrating their increasing numbers of international academics.

Stephanie Kim, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Korean Studies, interviewed nearly 50 faculty, administrators and students at Underwood International College (UIC), which was opened in 2006 by the prestigious Seoul-based Yonsei University.

She discovered a dispiriting picture of life as an international member of staff at Yonsei. Foreign staff were young and untenured, which meant that they could not hold senior administrative posts at their own college.

Senior managers came from other departments and academic units, leaving one interviewee to say that there was a “feeling amongst faculty that the central administration dictates what’s going to happen without consulting us”.

For example, in 2011 the main base of UIC was moved away from Yonsei’s main campus in Seoul despite faculty members and students having little desire to hold classes at the new site, Dr Kim’s interviews found.

Lacking connections from previous study at the university, international faculty were cut off from powerful networks within Yonsei, according to the study, “Western faculty ‘flight risk’ at a Korean university and the complexities of internationalisation in Asian higher education”, published in Comparative Education.

Without connections, foreign faculty felt that there was a “glass ceiling to their career prospects” at Yonsei. “If my dream was becoming dean, it would probably bother me because I think there are relatively few deanships in Yonsei that would be open to a foreign professor,” one interviewee told Dr Kim.

However, there are some signs of change to this network-driven system, Dr Kim told Times Higher Education. “Because of recent public backlash to elitism in Korean universities, some schools have established a quota system that allows a department only a certain number of new hires from those with alumni connections,” she explained, but added that it was so far unclear whether this would help foreign faculty.

The interviews suggest that Yonsei is not yet attracting those scholars with other career options. “Almost all came because they could not find a suitable academic job in the United States or another Western country,” the paper says.

Many international academics “arrive at Yonsei University only to leave within several years”, the paper found, as faculty still wanted to work at a Western university because this was seen as better for their career prospects.

Dr Kim said that the problems at Yonsei “may very likely” be replicated at other universities in South Korea, and she hoped to explore this in future research.

In her study, she suggests that the “mass departure of Western faculty members from a Korean university suggests that Asian HEIs are not actually integrating them into their faculty body in a meaningful way – implying that Westernisation is merely a strategically appropriated façade”.

Previous research, conducted by scholars from Stanford University and Yonsei, has also suggested that foreign academics are often perceived as “temporary skilled labour” and “second-tier” scholars.

Yonsei University had not replied to a request for a response in time for THE’s deadline.

South Korean government schemes drive internationalisation, but with mixed results

A number of government schemes have pushed South Korean universities to internationalise their faculty, including the World Class University Project, which began in 2008 and funded the recruitment of renowned foreign scholars, and the Brain Korea 21 Project, which from 1999 to 2006 incentivised universities to publish in the world’s top science and technology journals.

The efforts appear to be working: in 2000, just 2.4 per cent of full-time faculty in South Korea were foreigners, but by 2013 this had risen to 7.1 per cent, according to Stephanie Kim’s research.

However the country is going backwards when it comes to recruiting more international students. Numbers peaked at almost 90,000 in 2011 but have been dropping gradually since.

The South Korean Ministry of Education wants to recruit 200,000 by 2023, so that 5 per cent of its student body is international. By 2020, it will spend more than £800 million a year on foreign students.

Yet its plans to create special departments or courses purely for foreign students were criticised as “ghettoising” international students when they were announced last year.


Print headline: The foreign legions in Korea don’t feel the love

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Reader's comments (7)

As one of the first foreign faculty members recruited to Yonsei's Underwood International College--- Stephanie Kim interviewed me and I think I am even quoted in this article--- I can confidently say that this article contributes very little to understanding the experience of foreign faculty at Yonsei, and indeed completely misrepresents our situation. UIC not only has a very high retention rate, but it has had great success recruiting foreign faculty members, many of whom have published books with major international presses, articles in top journals in their field, and have even won international awards, such as the prestigious Rome Fellowship in creative writing. Moreover, almost all are dedicated teachers, committed to the core values of liberal arts education. With few exceptions, I have found among my colleagues little of the profound dissatisfaction this article describes. When I spoke to Stephanie, I gave what I thought was a nuanced and subtle account of our situation. I did suggest that I felt blocked off from dean-level administrative positions, but I also spoke of how, in many other ways, this job has been incredibly empowering---not least of all because, when I arrived, the department was not glutted with senior faculty. As a new faculty member, I was able to play a profound role in shaping the curriculum and recruiting new faculty. The claim that almost all faculty came because they could not find suitable employment in the home country is either false, or meaningless. If I received, and accepted, one job offer from a R1 or Ivy League school, no one would have claimed that I could not find a "more suitable job"--- even though, had I gotten a better job offer, I would have accepted it instead. Many academics even from top programs in literature receive only one job offer, or none at all. Many spend years on the market before they can find a "suitable position." Perhaps it is different in Stephanie Kim's field, but in my own--- German literature and philosophy --- the job market sucks: and I was absolutely delighted to find a tenure track job with a 2/2 teaching load in a city where I actually wanted to live and where my wife, who is Korean, has family-- a job that would allow me to teach the sorts of courses that I wanted to teach. Many brilliant scholars in my field either have no full-time employment, or are not teaching what they really want to, or are at positions with extremely high teaching loads. Moreover, UIC enjoys a flexibility in hiring that more traditional departments lack --- and this often works to our advantage. Some of my colleagues, to be sure, have left: in recent years we have lost faculty to Harvard, SNU, and CU Hong Kong. So what! Faculty leave ... There is no mass exodus. Finally, it is true that, when Stephanie conducted the interviews in 2012, the faculty was relatively junior. This is, of course, changing. John Frankl was promoted to full professor with tenured professor, as was I --- and there are many associate professors as well. Finally, this article assumes a very simple-minded notion of "foreignness." Many faculty are ethnic Koreans, or married to Koreans, or from other countries within Asia... Or scholars working in Korean studies...
Nice administrative puffery in the previous comment. The fact is that discrimination against foreign faculty exists at Yonsei and is rampant among the many departments across the university. Adler's comments fall short -as the article falls short- because of the lack of a wider survey across the university as a whole (Adler looking only to the UIC as proof that everything is just fine there). In other universities in Korea it is much, much worse for foreign faculty than at Yonsei and the UIC. Some faculty members I know of at Yonsei are given low visa designations that complicate many things in life like banking or having access to simple things like phone contracts and the like. Also, the onus of publishing often enough falls on foreign faculty to make up for their colleagues' inability or unwillingness to publish (and as I have seen the numbers for several departments, many -if not all- professors here fall far short of their required quotas and yet are rewarded with promotions and the attendant bells and whistles). Also, the UIC has let one faculty member continue in their job with a promotion after they were accused by several students of sexual harassment, and after this case was brought to the school's attention it was subsequently ignored. Ditto things like recommended counseling for potentially troubled students. It is often enough brushed aside. Anyway, there is no mass exodus from Yonsei because there aren't any jobs to flee to. It has less to do with how dandy things are in the school. Those in nice positions like Adler have their 2/2 teaching load and scrape together a publication once in a while and continue to call themselves 'research professors.' I'm in the CE department so luckily I don't have to deal with publishing. We get to deal with our contracts being shortened as punitive action against us should we not bend the knee to our colleagues' whim. Yeah, it's great here if you're at the top.
Um... how is this "administrative puffery"? I'm speaking solely as a UIC faculty member--- solely about UIC. I was not trying to defend the treatment of foreign faculty at Korean Universities in general, or even at Yonsei, but only to answer to specific, vaguely formulated and somewhat defamatory claims made about UIC. Incidentally, I call myself a "research professor" because I do research and get it published... Ditto with most of my colleagues. If you don't believe me, I'll send you my CV.
I would simply like to point out that, despite his rather nasty ad hominem allegations, Buford Eugene is actually making the same point as Anthony Adler. They agree that, contrary to Stephanie Kim's observations, the situation at UIC is quite favorable. The only difference is that Buford Eugene appears to consider this treatment unmerited (while curiously declaring his own aversion to research). I teach at UIC and know Anthony well; he's highly esteemed among our faculty and in his field. His excellent publication record is of course easily verifiable. The question that strikes me as more interesting is how we might build a relationship of solidarity between foreign professors in different departments on campus, rather than one of resentment and competition.
I read that article and as best I can tell there isn't anything said here that's in contradiction. Ya sure you folks are doing just fine with your cushy job and fancy awards as long as you don't inconvenience anyone upstairs or God forbid write an article about your employer. Even hagwons love their good little foreigners who don't complain. The glass ceiling is definetly true for waegook professors not just us English teachers.
The contradiction consists in arguing simultaneously that a) foreign professors are exploited to make up for Korean professors' lack of research accomplishments AND b) foreign professors are only nominally research professors, and don't do any real research, but only scrape together an article now and then. OR a) foreign professors have a cushy job AND b) foreign professors only stay because they have no other options. OR a) Foreign professors are institutionally disempowered AND b) THis particular professor (me!) feels empowered enough to bother (despite having tenure) to write a comment in a public forum, engaging in "administrative puffery" even though he's not even an administrator anymore. Or moreover, the contradiction consists in internalizing the very discrimination you face. I am grateful for my job because it is a good job. Is it, then, a cushy job? No. Like nearly all of my colleagues, I work a great deal; typically 70 or more hours a week. Moreover, academic research requires concentration, imagination, creativity. I am grateful for the freedom that my job affords, but this freedom is not a luxury. It's the necessary condition for my work. It is a scandal that so many highly-trained academics get stuck in contingent employment and are not able to do the research they were trained to do. But I'm not sure if I understand why English teachers working at Korean Universities feel such hostility toward professors with lighter teaching loads and greater research (and service) responsibilities. Few foreign College English professors have doctorates; few have "demonstrated research potential." Yes, I'll admit: a tenure-track job is fundamentally more desirable than a 4/4 position teaching English. But: the qualifications are also different, and, from what I can tell, almost no CE professors would meet even the minimal requirements for any job at UIC with a 2/2 or 3/3 teaching load. I'm very grateful that I was able to get a doctorate, but it was not easy: 3 years of course work, 4 years writing my dissertation, all while living on a stipend that barely covered my living expenses. Not to mention the incredible uncertainty and stress of the job market. There are many systematic problems with the way that foreigner professors have been integrated into Yonsei and other Korean universities, and I would never deny that there's a glass ceiling of a sort. But Yonsei, unlike many institutions, does hire foreign faculty for tenure-track faculty on the same contractual terms as Koreans, and this makes a huge difference. Rather than quibbling among themselves, foreign faculty, as JHBH notes, should look for common interests, points of solidarity. But denying the real differences between different faculty positions, and baselessly questioning the qualifications of those who have dedicated their lives to teaching and research, hardly seems like a good place to start.
As the THE piece, the Stephanie Kim piece upon which it is largely based, and the posts from Buford Eugene are all quite thin when it comes to any actual statistics, real names, etc., please allow me to provide the following actual example in support of Anthony Adler's comments. Dr. Terry Murphy was one of the few CE instructors (they are actually not professors) with a solid PhD and publication record. Due to these facts, he was hired by the English Language and Literature department as a tenure-track professor. In regognition of his previous work, he was hired at associate professor. A couple of years ago, due to his continued excellence, he was promoted to full professor and tenured. I can, and will if necessary, provide additional similar cases. It would be nice if the THE and those who disagree with my position would have the professionalism and integrity to do the same.